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Russia bombs Chechen bases, widens conflict

Russia has carried out its threat to bomb guerrilla bases inside Chechnya, widening its war against the Islamic rebels in the North Caucasus, a spokesman for Russia's Interior Ministry said Saturday.

Russian officials insisted the bases were being used by the Islamic rebels to support their insurgency in neighboring Dagestan. The bombing raids came as four Russian soldiers were killed and 13 wounded in a seven-hour clash in the mountains of Dagestan.

That, too, was a measure of the intensified fighting. Before Saturday, Russia's casualties in its military campaign against the rebels had stood at 10 killed and 27 wounded. A Russian military spokesman insisted that rebel casualties were far greater, but there was no way to confirm those claims.

The Islamic fighters have vowed to seize the Russian region of Dagestan and turn it into an Islamic nation. Russia's acting prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has staked the credibility of his new government on thwarting the rebels.

Russia's Parliament is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to confirm him. After meeting with Putin on Saturday, hard-line and centrist lawmakers predicted swift approval, though critics have said he does not have the background to repair the nation's economic paralysis.

While there is little debate about the goals of the military operation in Dagestan, there is considerable anxiety that the Russian military may repeat the mistakes of its violent and, ultimately, fruitless campaign in Chechnya.

Although Russia insists that Chechnya is still formally part of Russia, it has achieved a de facto independence. Compounding the insult, one of the leaders of the new insurgency in Dagestan is Shamil Basayev, the Chechen commander who defeated the Russians in Chechnya.

As Putin vowed to battle the rebels and to achieve the sort of victory that eluded the Russian military in Chechnya, Russian officials rushed to tout their gains.

They said the military had intercepted radio communications indicating that the rebel commanders were in a state of panic and were pleading for reinforcements.

The Russian military, they also said, had captured the interpreter for Khattab, the Jordanian militant who is one of the commanders.

That, Russian officials insisted, should silence rebel boasts that they have suffered only a relative handful of casualties. But the Russian military reported similar success during the war in Chechnya.

Evaluating the Russian military's tactics is not easy since only a few reporters have ventured into a lawless region.

The newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazetta observed Saturday that the military had created an "information blockade" by issuing terse reports on the fighting and requiring that reporters near the battle area be accompanied by representatives of the Russian military command.

The official accounts, the newspaper complained, have sometimes raised more questions than they have answered since occasionally they have been contradictory. Moreover, Russian reporters do not appear to be close to the latest fighting.

"All television channels are showing the same and mostly old footage," the newspaper observed.

What is clear, however, is that the fighting is intensifying. There have been conflicting estimates about the size of the rebel army. But one recent Interior Ministry projection said the militants had about 1,200 fighters, one-third of whom were based in Chechnya.

Russian officials said their military campaign will be completed within two weeks, though they appear to be preparing the Russian public for skirmishing that will last long after that.

Russian Interior Ministry officials said Saturday that Russian helicopters and bombers carried out 19 airstrikes on guerrilla positions Friday, including one near the Chechen village of Kenki, which is close to the border of Dagestan.

Islamic rebels have not only used bases in Chechnya to supply and reinforce their insurgency in Dagestan, the Russian spokesman said, but have fired across the border as well.

Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov, commander of the Russian Interior Ministry forces in the region, said the military campaign against the rebels was just getting under way and that the large-scale operation would begin today.

The guerrillas, for their part, have threatened to make Russian leaders their targets. That talk is being taken seriously in Moscow.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.